Volume 46, Issue 2 - March 2007

Secret Shopper
Shelter Goes Undercover
by Samantha Carpenter, Sarah Batcheler and Drew Vass
Editor and assistant editors of
Shelter magazine.

A Winner or Loser? Different Secret Shopping Experiences, Different Results

Shelter is revamping the way it secret shops distributors, dealers and retailers. Instead of focusing on only one building-supply company, Shelter will be shopping for a specific product at two or more locations, and you’ll be able to compare results and determine which locations came out winners and which came out losers.

A Low Point for Lowe’s

It was the afternoon of Monday, January 14, when I stepped into Lowe’s on Old Grove Road in Oceanside, Calif., to secret shop. Wandering through the store, I noticed that it was neat, clean and organized—that is, until I entered the lumber area. There were no shoppers or employees in sight. A row of shopping carts stacked back-to-back blocked the aisle closest to the wall. Empty boxes were scattered on the cluttered floor. The sight was disappointing.

After waiting in the lumber area for about five minutes (long enough to examine the mess on the floor, notice the clutter in the aisle and take pictures of the scene), I spotted a “help” button on the wall. I pressed the button and a loud announcement, “An associate is needed in the lumber area,” echoed throughout the store. I waited. 

A minute passed and the message was repeated. After a few more seconds, a young man wearing jeans, work boots and a back-support belt rounded the corner in a swift jog. He asked me if I was the one waiting to be helped as he hurried to end the message blaring over the loudspeaker.

I learned from the man’s badge that his name was JW and that he was a commercial loader. 

I inquired about Plytanium® Dry-Ply™ Plywood. I told him I’d be building a house in the next year and I wanted to know if the product was available and get some more information.

“I haven’t heard of it,” JW said. “That is probably a product for back East, or a regional thing.” 

He immediately turned to leave, returning in the direction from which he had just come.

“Well, I found information about it on the Internet, and your website says that you have it,” I said. “Can you please double-check for me?”

He unstrapped a radio from his waste band, and after I heard a mumbled response over the radio, JW turned and walked two aisles over. 

“Here it is,” he said quickly.

Yes, in fact, there was an entire row of Plytanium® products that stretched the length of the store. The product was not mistaken easily because the sides of the plywood bore a huge blue stamp identifying the product.

“Okay,” I said. “Well, do you have any information about the product besides what is listed?” 

I was referring to the small posters that labeled the products.

“I just know that it can be used for other applications besides those listed,” he said. 

I couldn’t believe that someone who didn’t know the product even existed two minutes before felt confident giving me a suggestion about it. Shortly afterwards, JW vanished. 

I was extremely disappointed with my shopping experience at this particular Lowe’s. JW proved he had more important things to do than help me. —SB

Home is Where the Heart Is

During the noon hour, my husband and I walked into Home Depot on Chenal Parkway in Little Rock, Ark. We were greeted immediately upon entering, and walked across the store to the lumber aisles. 

We had to wait to receive service, but we didn’t mind because we could see that employees were working hard.

I was standing at the end of a plywood row when an associate driving a forklift asked if I needed some help. I said that I did.

He promptly stepped down from the forklift, and he and another associate came to assist us.

“Our floor in our bathroom is rotted, so we are going to replace the subfloor and everything,” I said. “I’ve been reading about the Plytanium plywood product, and I was wondering what you suggest or if you could tell me more about that product.”

Neither associate, Tracy nor Todd, tried to push the Plytanium product. In fact they recommended the 7/16 Norboard plywood with a price point of $5.98.“That’s what I used in my bathroom,” Tracy said. “I’ve got four kids, and water goes everywhere.” “Is that plywood thick enough to put under a Jacuzzi tub?” my husband inquired.

After asking us what kind of foundation we had, Tracy recommended two or three different thicknesses for a house with a crawl space.

He suggested a tongue-and-groove plywood with a price point of $15.95. He added that we might want to consider using treated plywood because of the Jacuzzi.

“With what is it treated?” I asked. “Not CCA, right?”

Todd said, “I’ll go get you a sheet that tells you exactly what it’s treated with.”

Todd came back with a sheet about the NatureWood product, which is treated with alkaline copper quaternary. They recommended two thicknesses: ¾ inch with a $32.97 price point and ½ inch with a $24.97 price point.

We thanked Tracy and Todd for their time and, as we left the store we heard, “Thanks for coming to Home Depot.”

Overall, it was a great shopping experience. Tracy and Todd didn’t try to push a specific product on us, and after learning about our project, they offered up specific options. They even connected with us by relating the use of the plywood in their own homes.

Based on this experience, we would return to this Little Rock Home Depot store. —SC

There’s a Chill in the Air

It seemed to be a slow day for 84 Lumber Co. There was only one salesperson working at the Landmark Road location in Richmond, Va., but that was ample considering I was the only customer in sight. He was on the phone, but acknowledged me with a polite nod as I came through the door.

In the meantime, I poked around to see what the store was like. The storefront was relatively clean, but the curb appeal seemed very builder-oriented. It had a slightly cluttered appearance and the parking lot doubled as a lumberyard, with stacks of material spread around the perimeter.

The store was well organized with rows of hardware near the counter, while the rest was filled with racks containing millwork, doors, windows and other building products. It was more like a warehouse than a retail establishment, with plain concrete floors, and it didn’t take me long to notice there wasn’t any heat. It was a little odd to see a salesperson dressed in a stocking cap and thick insulated vest, but I can’t blame him as it was rather chilly.

I found an entire row of display carousels filled with product literature. It was well organized and featured everything from Ecostar™ roofing products, Larson storm doors and Grace flashing products, to Jeld-Wen® doors and windows. There really wasn’t much in the way of product displays, aside from a few display boards tacked to the adjoining office wall.

I was on my third carousel when the salesperson hung his phone up and asked if he could help me. I explained I was interested in finding out more about Georgia Pacific’s (GP) Plytanium plywood that is specially coated to resist wet weather. He said he wasn’t familiar with the product. I insisted that I had “read something somewhere about it,” but he clearly wasn’t familiar. 

“Don’t go anywhere,” he said. “I’m going to call our rep and see what I can find out for you.” He immediately picked up the telephone.

I appreciated his initiative and hung around to eavesdrop on the call. Much to my surprise, the rep apparently said he also knew nothing of it! Since we’re all only as good as our sources, the salesperson was clearly freed from responsibility at this point. So I abandoned the product and moved on to other random questions, all of which received a prompt and courteous answer. He provided me with his business card before I left and requested that I contact him with any future questions.

In spite of my lack of success, I was pleased with the experience. While this 84 Lumber was by no means plush and a little uncomfortable, it seemed like the kind of place that could get the job done. I would shop there in the future, but I’ll try to remember to wear a thicker jacket next time. —DV


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